Nineteen years ago Friday, attacks by the Islamist terrorist cult Al Qaeda took place on American soil, followed by conspiracy theories that the CIA bombed the World Trade Towers and the Pentagon. These have been thoroughly debunked, but they have still flourished, as Al Qaeda did itself until the U.S. took the threat seriously.
Before you dismiss QAnon as another kooky ideology, consider the fact that it’s gaining popularity — and quickly.
Now we face another dangerous cult that has inspired political conspiracy theories and could once again do the U.S. homeland damage: QAnon. The shadowy internet-based organization's followers believe that the world is run by a global cabal of Satan-worshipping pedophiles and child sex traffickers who are plotting against President Donald Trump and his supporters and that only Trump can save us. There is great concern that QAnon might turn violent, particularly if Trump loses the election.
According to QAnon, those involved in the plotting include "deep state" government bureaucrats, Democrats and celebrities. QAnon also appears to be spouting Nazi anti-Semitic tropes, and it uses biblical references, as some are convinced that Jewish bankers want to enslave people and incite world wars, evoking an out-and-out Nazi cult. They have recruited anti-vaxxers who are espousing distrust of virus experts like Dr. Anthony Fauci, believe Bill Gates wishes to put chips into people and think 5G cell towers are dangerous.
Before you dismiss QAnon as another kooky ideology, consider that it's gaining popularity — and quickly. There are millions of QAnon (pronounced "KEW-a-non") adherents in the United States, with entities established in more than 71 countries. And their conspiracy theories have seeped into the political landscape in significant ways.
Trump supporters attach a "Q" to their signs. Forbes has named 15 congressional candidates who have promoted QAnon. Trump himself has retweeted many QAnon followers, and when he was asked about it by a reporter who referred to QAnon's "belief that you are secretly saving the world from this satanic cult of pedophiles and cannibals," Trump responded, "If I can help save the world from problems, I'm willing to do it."
QAnon poses a serious threat to society, and not only because it's spreading misinformation about certain groups of people. Adherents have been accused of acts of violence, including attempted kidnapping and attempted murder. The FBI has named QAnon followers as "conspiracy theory-driven domestic extremists." Some members of Congress have been so concerned about QAnon that the House recently introduced a resolution calling out QAnon's "capacity to radicalize to violence individuals at an alarming speed."
Scariest of all can be when QAnon rears its head close to home, in the form of people you know starting to talk about the "truth" they've discovered from QAnon. If this happens and you want to steer them away from these beliefs, hopefully for good, it's important to know what to say — and what not to say.
While not all followers are "brainwashed" by all of its beliefs, QAnon is a destructive cult that operates the same way all cults do. That is, QAnon recruiters and proselytizers use deceptive and manipulative tactics to attract people and feed them messages that trigger certain emotions to hook them and indoctrinate them into a new sense of reality.
QAnon leaders spread their messages through social media platforms, such as Twitter, Reddit and YouTube. These platforms are able to algorithmically radicalize people who are curious about QAnon using clickbait titles, images, videos and even purported documentaries. According to alternate reality game expert Jim Stewartson, QAnon uses online gaming techniques to entice people down an online rabbit hole, offering them a series of fantasy challenges with hidden code messages called "Q drops" that soon become addictive.
By getting involved with QAnon, followers feel they are part of an elite community, which gives them a sense of belonging. That's a powerful force — but you can work against it if you take the right steps.
First of all, though, you need to protect yourself. Intelligent people can fall prey to cult tactics, which work most effectively on those who don't understand how they work. This could be you. Take the time to learn about the potential dangers of cults and conspiracy theories and how they use mind control to attract and control vulnerable people.
My Influence Continuum is a helpful guide to distinguish healthy, ethical influence from destructive authoritarian influence. My BITE model of mind control outlines the specific behaviors that mind controllers use. Techniques include deception, confusion, hypnotic suggestions in videos, loaded language like "fake news" and phobia programming — such as the idea that not joining the cause will lead to the end of the world.
This education will help keep you from becoming QAnon's next victim. Then you should approach your friend or relative, keeping in mind these guidelines:
Engage with the person. Appear curious about their beliefs and how they were introduced to them. Ask what person, social media post or video first got them interested and what led them to take it more seriously. Connect with the person by focusing on shared interests and experiences. This is important, because it will help remind the person who they were before getting hooked into the cult. It's also important to keep the conversation positive, because developing rapport and trust with warmth is a key to engaging and getting people to interact with you similarly. They have been indoctrinated to think you have been brainwashed by the likes of the pedophile traffickers, so it's important that they see you as a real person.
Don't judge. Don't insult the person or try to argue against their beliefs. Don't talk down to them or call them names. Instead, act genuinely interested in what they understand the group and its beliefs to be. Don't use terms like "conspiracy theory" or "brainwashed." That could cause the person to avoid you entirely, spend more time online and slide further down into the QAnon world.
Appeal to their sense of integrity, reason and conscience. Orient the QAnon believer to the idea that if something is true, it will stand up to scrutiny. Talk about the value of research, which has to include reading what critics and former QAnon members have to say, not only believers.
Suggest alternative information sources. Redirect the person toward legitimate news sources, social psychology research and other sources of reliable information about how the mind works that shed light on some of the topics QAnon uses to draw people in, such as child trafficking. (This is especially important because QAnon followers have hijacked a movement to stop child trafficking.) My book on cults explains this process in more detail.
Intelligent people can fall prey to cult tactics, which work most effectively on those who don't understand how they work. This could be you.
Create a team of trusted allies. You're just one person against a large community of cult influencers. To bolster critical thinking and independent decision-making, talk to the QAnon follower's friends and family members and encourage them to reconnect with their loved one. The more time the person spends with others and away from the QAnon chat forums, the better.
Now that QAnon is becoming a global phenomenon, with Trump and others in positions of power promoting it, there's a lot at stake. As we approach the presidential elections, Russia and the Christian right are promoting QAnon theories, while the cult's leaders are calling for followers on Twitter to prepare themselves for an armed civil war. We have to be vigilant and do what we can to learn about the dangers of QAnon so we can protect ourselves and those we care about — as well as our democracy — from this cult.